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Internet posts are permanent, safety experts warn

West Life photo illustration by Kevin Kelley

Randy Kimbro, a graduate of the FBI Citizen’s Academy, and Colleen Brown, FBI community outreach specialist, listen to a question during their presentation on Internet safety for children Jan. 26 at the Westlake Schools Performing Arts Center. (West Life photo by Kevin Kelley)

By Kevin Kelley


Young children need to be warned not to post personal information on the Internet, two experts told parents at an FBI-sponsored informational session Thursday night at the Westlake City Schools’ Performing Arts Center.

Organized by the Health and Safety Committee of the Westlake City Schools, the program featured Randy Kimbro, a graduate of the FBI’s Citizens’ Academy, and Colleen Brown, an FBI community outreach specialist.

Information such as a child’s age, real birthday, school and phone number should not be entered online, Kimbro told the roughly 60 parents in attendance. Kimbro also advised giving made-up answers to security questions, such as “What was the name of your first pet?” that websites often ask in case a user forgets his or her password. The Olmsted Falls firefighter revealed that his daughter’s ex-boyfriend successfully broke into her e-mail account because he knew the answers.

Teens and preteens should also not “check in,” that is, post where they physically are, online, Kimbro added. Because many smartphones have GPS capabilities, photos posted online often include data indicating where a particular photo was taken, he noted. While that feature can be turned off, many users unknowingly leave it on, he added.

“What if a person who’s following you isn’t someone you want following you?” Brown asked rhetorically.

Privacy settings on social networking sites can be unreliable or overlooked, Kimbro said.

“You can never assume that your stuff that’s out there is private,” he said. “It’s much better to educate your kids on not putting that stuff out there to begin with.”

The two speakers noted that it’s easy for adults to masquerade as someone else on social networking websites.

FBI agent Joe Russ, who helped prepare Kimbro and Brown’s presentation, said sites such as Facebook cannot monitor who is online or whether those who sign up are above the required age of 13.

“You don’t know who’s on the other side of that chat,” Kimbro said. Today, even video game consoles, such as Xbox and Wii, are connected to the Internet and feature online chat for interactive play, he noted.

What’s a good age to allow a child to create a Facebook account? Kimbro said 13 is a good age, because the child is still likely willing to listen to parents about how to safely use the Internet.

If parents allow their child to open a Facebook or similar account, the parents should closely monitor its use and know the child’s password in order to access the account, Kimbro said.

Addressing the issue of sexting, the electronic sending of sexually explicit messages or photos, especially between cellphones, Brown acknowledged that it’s not an easy subject for parents to discuss with their children. She warned that risque photos, even if a person is not nude, can be legally considered child pornography.

“There are cases in the state of Ohio every month where people are being charged for the fact that they are passing child pornography back and forth,” she said. “Even if it is a kid that is passing it back and forth, it can’t happen.”

Such photos will exist forever in cyberspace, she said, with damaging legal and emotional consequences for those involved.

On the issue of cyberbullying, Kimbro advised parents to educate their kids on the problem and try to nip it in the bud early if it starts by contacting school administrators, or even law enforcement, if necessary.

“Cyberbullying can get out of hand real quick,” he said, adding that in some cases it has led to suicides.

Kimbro said the purpose of the program was not to scare parents, but make them smarter about the Internet. It’s not practical for parents to prevent their children from going online, because the Internet is practically everywhere, he added.

“The best thing you can do is just that common-sense parenting – watch what they’re doing and help them (use the Internet) safely,” he said.

Key tips on keeping children safe while online:

– Tell children to tell an adult if a stranger approaches them online.
– Make children realize that all Internet postings are potentially public and permanent.
– Parents should know where their children are and what they’re doing, both online and offline.
– Source: Colleen Brown, FBI community outreach specialist



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